The recent visit of the Russian foreign and defence ministers to Cairo has been hailed by some pundits as historic. In many respects it was reminiscent of the early years of the Cold War when the Soviet Union was the main backer of Egypt’s military regime. Some argue that this visit, and the anticipated arms deal, signal a strategic shift in Egypt’s foreign policy; a staunch American ally for over thirty years. Local media has subtly been emphasizing this point for the purposes of domestic consumption. This view, however, ignores a number of strategic and structural issues that will make any shift in Egypt’s foreign policy untenable, as the country’s dependence on the US goes beyond the supply of arms.
As argued elsewhere the Egyptian state can be considered an example of a rentier state, dependent on strategic rents for survival. The ruling elites - the military and state-dependent bourgeois - rely on the appropriation of public funds and external aid to accumulate capital. For example, the military with its vast business empire - some experts estimate it to be as much as 40% of the GDP - is exempted from taxation and civilian oversight, and the state-dependent bourgeois receive generous support from the government in the form of cheap credit and land. Indeed, in Egypt it can at times be very difficult to distinguish between the public and private sectors. External financial support, loans or aid, are a core source of revenue to the current regime, which leaves the country in an extremely vulnerable position. In that respect, Russia is no match for the US; American hegemony in the international financial system places it in a unique position, not only in terms of aids and loans that it administers directly, but also in its ability to control loans and aid from international financial institutions. Russia is in no position to offer the generous financial support that the Egyptian regime has grown accustomed to; Russia is not the Soviet Union.
One could also argue that the current military regime is reliant on the United States to provide political international cover for its repressive policies. During the Mubarak regime, the US and its allies turned a blind eye to the numerous abuses committed by the regime, effectively whitewashing it on the international stage. At the onset of the Egyptian uprising, Joe Biden went as far as to claim that Mubarak was not a dictator - a statement since retracted. This can also be seen in the relatively muted response to the massacres that took place in Cairo against Muslim Brotherhood supporters, where hundreds were killed in a span of a few days; an event that could have caused international uproar if it had taken place in a country the United States and the west did not consider an ally. One only needs to remember the position the US and the international community assumed before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Once again, the US has unique capabilities in this arena; the Russians cannot match its dominance in controlling the media and soft powers. American political cover to Egypt is as important, if not more so, than its economic or military support.
Looking at the international system, despite waning American powers, one can safely argue that the current international order is a unipolar system. In other words, international organizations are heavily influenced and shaped by American powers and interests. Friends like the US are necessary for a regime like Egypt that appears to be preparing for a massive repressive campaign. The US can use its powers to direct attention away from the repression of the Egyptian state and alleviate any possible pressure that might condemn such repression. One only needs to remember the role the US has played in manipulating and blocking the Goldstone report; and pressuring allies and international organizations not to take any action when the report came out.
Why then did Egyptians pursue what seems to be a relatively poorly planned and futile exercise? For two reasons. First, although John Kerry, on his latest visit to Cairo, stated that the partial suspension of aid is a temporary measure and that Egypt is a strategic ally to the United States, this angered Egyptian leadership and they responded by ‘playing’ the Russian card. In the upcoming presidential elections, the current head of the military, Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sisi, it is widely speculated, will run as a candidate. If he runs and wins, it will place the US in the awkward position of having supported an outright military coup; the sham of Egyptian democracy would lose its last fig leaf. So this suspension of military aid might be an attempt to rein the Egyptian military closer in to the Algerian or Turkish models of indirect rather than direct rule. However, maybe the military craves more and is using the Russians to send a message.
The second reason is the military establishment's penchant for eliciting the spirit of Nasser as a protector of the homeland. Egyptians have a deep distrust of the US and the close relationship with the Mubarak regime was detested by a large number of people. Thus, the current regime is trying to exploit anti-American sentiment to re-cast itself as a bulwark against American imperialism. It is also trying to create analogies between El Sisi and Nasser, considered a champion of anti-imperialism and an ally of the Soviet Union, and still adored by a large segment of the population. This message is being played out in local media, and not very subtly at times. The visit by Russian officials is painted as historic and unprecedented, almost opening a new era of Egyptian foreign policy and ending dependence on the United States. It is also important to note that all American gestures of disapproval are being portrayed as support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. This fuelling of anti-American sentiment, at times on the verge of hysteria, has given authorities the opportunity to exploit these feelings and brand the military as the protector of the nation.
The relationship between the US and Egypt might see ebbs and flows, however their alliance will remain strong and solid. The latest rapprochement between Cairo and Moscow can be categorized as tactical rather than strategic; designed to pressure an old ally and enhance the legitimacy of the current regime.